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The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur (The…

The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur (The Arthur Books #1) (original 1995; edition 1997)

by Bernard Cornwell

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2,800773,138 (4.07)1 / 184
Title:The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur (The Arthur Books #1)
Authors:Bernard Cornwell
Info:St. Martin's Griffin (1997), Paperback, 433 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction
Tags:Historical Fiction, Arthurian Legend, Celtic Religion

Work details

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell (1995)

  1. 10
    The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (Donogh)
    Donogh: As you rooted for the British against the Saxons in Cornwell's 'The Winter King', so shall you root for the Saxons agains the Danes in Cornwell's 'The Last Kingdom'

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English (66)  French (3)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (2)  Portuguese (1)  German (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (76)
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The Winter King is the first novel in Bernard Cornwell’s remarkable King Arthur trilogy in which Cornwell tells the age-old tale through the eyes of Derfel Cadarn, a Saxon boy who survived a druid death pit to become one of Arthur’s most trusted warriors. As with all his stories, Cornwell pays great attention to the historic details, bringing vividly to life the full trauma of the Saxon invasion of England, whilst somehow managing to retain the mystical charm of Arthurian legend. Here there are warriors, epic battles and love stories, all set against the passing of the old Gods and the rise of Christianity. And, yes, there are would-be sorcerers and witches as well, but Cornwell does a brilliant job of teasing us as to whether the magic that seems to permeate the story is real, or simply a figment of superstition in the minds of the characters.

I have read just about everything Bernard Cornwell has written and, for me, this is his masterpiece. And the relentlessly heroic Derfel has to be my favorite of all his characters, more so even than the gritty Uthred from the Saxon Chronicles (another fantastic, not to be missed series). This book might be about the legendary King Arthur, but Derfel is the true hero, and his own love story surpasses even that of Arthur and Guinevere.

If you enjoy historical fiction or the legend of King Arthur, do yourself a favor and pick up this series. It really does not get any better. ( )
  AndrewGaddes | Sep 17, 2018 |
I've always been a fan of Arthurian books and
Bernard Cornwell puts a fresh spin on the old Arthurian stories.Looking forward to reading the next two. ( )
  usnmm2 | Aug 5, 2017 |
4.5 stars

Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes characters that are undoubtedly mythical and, as he admits in his afterword, continues to put together characters from different mythical or semi-historical heritages (such as Arthur and Merlin, only put together by Mallory but now indivisible), I would still class this work as a historical fiction, even a realistic historical fiction.

The author paints an incredibly vivid picture of Britain in the 6th century. A hundred years and more after the Romans have left, the island is awash with battle and intrigue as the ancient tribes seek to defend and expand their territory. The Eastern part of the land is under the control of the invading Saxons, the Irish raid from across the sea, and the efforts to reinstate worship of the Celtic gods clash with those religions brought by the Romans, especially the increasingly prominent and powerful Christianity.

These conflicts form the backbone of the novel. We see the names familiar from our centuries-long love affair with the Arthurian tales - Arthur himself, Guinevere and Merlin, Lancelot, Galahad, Nimue, Mordred, Morgan, and mad king Pellinore - each recognisable from their mythic image and yet quite different. Partly it is the gritty, realistic brutality of the Dark Ages Britain they inhabit, a million miles away from the shining armour and courtly manners of so many classic representations. By the standards of the medieval romances, and the Roman world which they envy as a golden age at the same time as they despise it, the lives of these people are barbarous. And some of them know it, doing their best to live in the crumbling Roman ruins they no longer have the expertise to maintain. But Cornwell also plays with our expectations of the characters. Arthur, as in the original stories before Chretien de Troyes, is neither a king nor a Christian but a Briton warlord, a noble, charismatic leader with the mission of uniting the native tribes against the invading Saxons. Lancelot is a spoilt, foppish, arrogant coward who employs poets to write about his non-existent feats of valour, which soon outlive the reality.

In these events - narrated by Derfel, a Saxon-born captain of Arthur who is recounting events years later after he has converted and become a monk - we see a possible germ of the Arthurian mythology in the warring and politics of this time. As Derfel writes the tale for Queen Igraine (who is too young to have known the people and events first hand) she tries to push him to embellish the facts away from grime and reality toward chivalry and magic, giving an idea of how legends grow in the telling.

The myths we know are medieval tales, and have become heavy with the imagery of Christianity, although Merlin and Nimue of the Lake and the Green Knight usually remain as a connection with the pagan past. I have read version which over-emphasise the Christian aspects or try to reclaim the tales for their pagan origins. In Cornwell's version belief and superstition permeates every page as belief in the 'native' gods of the Celtic Britons vies for dominance with more recent arrivals brought by the Saxons and, especially, the Romans; the cults of Isis, Mithras and of course Christ. This world is uncertain and brutal and so much is dark and unknowable. It is all but impossible to imagine not sharing the faith in supernatural beings having a direct and often malicious effect on every day life in such a condition. Omens and curses threaten to bring down the wrath of the gods, and to deny their existence is unthinkable. Cornwell does not gloss over the brutality of the slavery, human sacrifices and rapes that are prevalent amongst many holding pagan beliefs at the time, but neither does he avoid the hypocrisy and dishonesty in some of those of the early Christian church. Galahad, a Christian, is perhaps the most honest and noble character in the book, yet the self-sainted Bishop Sansum is utterly without merit. The pagan Arthur is heroic, though flawed, yet some of the other pagans are vicious in the extreme. Derfel often writes such things as "I know there is no greater joy than to serve Christ, but sometimes when I think of the times shoulder to shoulder before a battle, I miss my shield brothers", suggesting both an old man's regret at his passed youth and also a religious conversion that is perhaps more judicious than heartfelt.

The Winter King is brutal, noble, thrilling and thoughtful. The vividness of the scene setting is superb and the characters fully fleshed. I would highly recommend this to anyone with the slightest interest in Arthur, or the Dark Ages, or good books in general. ( )
  Pezski | Jun 8, 2017 |
This was the first Arthurian novel I ever read. I really enjoyed it. I felt it was well written and there were interesting characters. I also thought the battle scenes were described well and I was able to easily understand what was going on. There was also some language, so if you take offense to that then this is not your book. On the whole I really like this book and I am excited to continue on with the series. ( )
  RickyHaas | Mar 22, 2017 |
This telling of the Arthurian legend paints a different view of the characters from what we have come to expect. Arthur although charming has insecurities and vulnerabilities; Lancelot is vain and shallow while his brother Galahad is loyal and true to Arthur. The telling of the story is through Derfel Cadarn, a warrior and later christian, who fought beside Arthur and was his friend. Merlin, the most famous Druid in all of Briton, is fleetingly present throughout the story but lends his authority and presence when Arthur needs it the most. ( )
  Cal_Clapp | Sep 5, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernard Cornwellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Calado, Ivanir AlvesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cardeñoso, ConchaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Case, DavidNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Winter King is for Judy, with love
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312156960, Paperback)

Essentially this is a modern political thriller, told in flat American diction. Narrated by Derfel, an ordinary, likable man who rises through the ranks to become Arthur's friend and advisor in peace and war, the story doesn't follow the traditional patterns. Mordred is Uther's infant grandson, the legitimate king; Arthur is one of Mordred's guardians, sworn to hold the kingdom against the Saxon warlords until Mordred comes of age. Warfare is incessant. Arthur's dream of peace and unity seems unattainable. Derfel's own story--his strange origin, his love for Nimue, his worries and his triumphs--parallels Arthur's as he fights for and beside him.

Bernard Cornwell downplays the magic that enlivens the traditional stories, depicting it more as a combination of superstition and shrewd wits. I recommend this with reservations; though it's absorbing to read, the emphasis on battles and politics means that this will greatly appeal to some fantasy readers, but disappoint others.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:11 -0400)

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Set in Britain's Dark Ages, this story of Arthur journeys beyond the usual tales of chivalry and romance to introduce Arthur as a man of honor, loyalty, amazing valor, and a man who loves Guinevere more passionately than ever before. It takes a remarkable writer to make an old story as fresh and compelling as the first time we heard it. With The Winter King, the first volume of his magnificent Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell finally turns to the story he was born to write: the mythic saga of King Arthur. The tale begins in Dark Age Britain, a land where Arthur has been banished and Merlin has disappeared, where a child-king sits unprotected on the throne, where religion vies with magic for the souls of the people. It is to this desperate land that Arthur returns, a man at once utterly human and truly heroic: a man of honor, loyalty, and amazing valor; a man who loves Guinevere more passionately than he should; a man whose life is at once tragic and triumphant. As Arthur fights to keep a flicker of civilization alive in a barbaric world, Bernard Cornwell makes a familiar tale into a legend all over again.… (more)

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